Becoming a victim of its own success?
The law centre in Northern Ireland has a record of innovation and success in providing access to justice over 40 years. It now faces competition from new sources and the future is looking uncertain. Roger Smith explains
Law Centre (NI) has, since its foundation in 1977, been a member of what is now the Law Centres Network. There are, however, differences from most other UK centres. For a start, the NI centre is bigger. It has around 40 staff. More importantly, it is the sole law centre for its jurisdiction.
The centre gets the bulk of its total £1.5 million funding from four government departments and statutory bodies. It has been attractive to US funders. One US donor alone, Atlantic Philanthropies, currently contributes a fifth of the centre’s income. This has allowed it the luxury of a policy unit and also helped in the funding of work on mental health and the establishment of its litigation support project.
A series of success stories
Law Centre (NI) works as an ‘expert’ provider. Patricia Carty, a social security caseworker, explains: ‘We are a membership organisation with members who are frontline advice organisations. We help our members deal with social security cases through information, training and advice. We accept referrals. We seek test cases in specified areas. We have an advice telephone line.’
It has been astute in making the most of resources. A specialist project, funded by Comic Relief, has provided representation to young people trafficked for sex and employment. It led to a successful campaign for an independent legal guardian for trafficked and separated children.
The centre’s commitment to test cases, meanwhile, is impressive. It successfully took a classic discrimination challenge to the private provider of disability assessments, Atos Healthcare. Atos would only undertake mobility assessments in two centres half an hour out of Belfast when, previously, they would have been conducted in the city itself. The consequence could be a cruel form of catch 22: you can’t get extra benefit without a disability assessment; but if you can get to the office for a disability assessment, you are not sufficiently disabled.
The centre also operates its Legal Support Project, modelled on London’s Free Representation Unit. It concentrates on representation in employment and social security tribunal cases and opens around 100 files a year. The unit is linked to an interesting initiative at Ulster University. The university has introduced an LLM in clinical legal education with the centre providing a significant number of placements.
Policy engagement is also important to Law Centre (NI). One of its greatest victories has come in the field of mental capacity legislation where – using its expertise in the field – it has encouraged assembly politicians to legislate for a radically different and more progressive approach to mental capacity than in England or Scotland.
The most serious threat to Law Centre (NI) might be described as existential. It is based on the classic notion of a second-tier agency responsive to its perception of need and that of the generalist organisations it serves. Thus, it has taken up mental health as an area of work but not housing because nothing existed in the former area and the Housing Rights Service dealt with the latter.
There are proposals to streamline the voluntary sector without reference to any distinction between primary and secondary agencies. The progressive introduction of contracting by commissioners reduces space for agencies to determine their own priorities. Casework assistant director Jennifer Greenfield confirms: ‘Contracts that once would have gone to the centre now have to go through a tendering process. Private practice is now competing for work that it would not previously have done. And it has the experience of obtaining tenders that I am going to have to get.’
Voluntary agencies in Northern Ireland face a potential triple whammy: government policy is influenced by the austerity fashionable on the mainland; the apparent success of the peace process reduces the imperative for special treatment; and the US funders are now retreating. The centre may also become a victim of its own success. Catherine Harper, a barrister working on mental health, explains: ‘Originally, no other organisation was doing our kind of work. Now private practice is getting more involved – particularly since the fees were raised in 2011. Lawyers are coming to our training courses and then taking the cases.’
One issue that will be crucial in the future is the extent to which government and other funders are prepared to see Northern Ireland as a special case and different from elsewhere in the UK. The fragility of the political situation means it requires special consideration and would certainly benefit from the continued existence of its impressive law centre.